Dan Williams' essay on 'In Watermelon Sugar'
Flash player not available.

Click on the covers for more information on the different editions, including their availability.
If you cannot view the image, download the most recent version of Flash Player(external link)

A World Within: Solipsism and Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar

by Dan Williams?

Beginning perhaps with Thomas More's Utopia, and extending to the present day, literature that centers on the idea of a perfected society has been prolific. In our own century we have seen supreme examples of this kind of literature in such works as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Zamyatin's We, and George Orwell's 1984. These three works are particularly significant in that, besides being exemplary additions to the genre of "utopias," they have, more than any other such works, established the possibility of "negative utopia;" that is, they depict societies that are flawless, but that achieve their flawlessness by way of systems that are often inhuman or, as in 1984, absolutely evil. The emergence of these negative utopias can readily be seen as a twentieth-century phenomenon arising from man's sense of hopelessness in the face of such horrors as the first and second World Wars, mass industrialization, and the prospect of thermonuclear annihilation. What these works have done in the way of criticism concerning utopias has been to inspire a new terminology that distinguishes the positive types from the negative: "utopia," which simply means "no place," thus becomes "eutopia," meaning "good place," or "dystopia," meaning "bad place."

Because of the extreme differences that exist between these two types — the largest being that of intention — it has become principal to the analyses of twentieth century utopian fiction to classify each work as belonging to one or the other categories.

In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan, is one work of utopian fiction that seems to have defied such subclassification. Dissension among critics on this subject has been so great, in fact, that the argument itself is detracting from what may be more worthy of exploration.

Patricia Hernlund? has described the world of In Watermelon Sugar as being a place where life is "literally the same as dying," and provides much support for her view of the novel as dystopian. In contrast, Harvey Leavitt has called this world "the new Eden," and the evidence for his analogy is substantial. In short, attempts to judge Brautigan's novel as either "dystopian" or "eutopian" have been futile, and have perhaps even caused more problems than they have solved.

But whether a "good place" or "bad place," Brautigan's world is more a "no place" than can be found in most any other utopian fiction to date. The resemblance to our own world and experiences is almost nonexistent, and in this respect In Watermelon Sugar stretches the boundaries of traditional utopias, and borders on pure fable. For however much the tradition of utopian literature has evolved, one thing that has been common to all is a connection to some societal structure that already exists. Hence, in Brave New World, we recognize its hypothetical future as being founded on the industrial and scientific concerns of Huxley's day.

In In Watermelon Sugar, what takes the place of realism is solipsism, a stylistic rarity in fiction of any form. As one critic has said, solipsism is the "controlling agency" of Brautigan's novel (see Hansen). Thus, before we seek to subclassify this utopia as "good place" or "bad place," we may be better served by first acknowledging and defining the unique manner in which it is, first and foremost, "no place." To do this, we must have an understanding of solipsism and how it applies to In Watermelon Sugar. Such understanding will be best attained through an examination of what "watermelon sugar" represents.

First, "watermelon sugar" is the name that Brautigan has given to his world. It is named such, apparently, because watermelon sugar is the only substance, besides pines and stones, from which it is constructed. Even the lives of its community, the narrator tells us, are constructed from watermelon sugar: "we take the juice from the watermelons and cook it down until there is nothing left but sugar, and then we work it into the shape of this thing we have: our lives." Clearly, "watermelon sugar" is more than what it would seem on the surface, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the first two paragraphs:

The deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar.
(IWS, p.1)

Tony Tanner has defined watermelon sugar as being "the sweet secretion of the imagination", a definition that goes far in establishing an adequate vision of the solipsistic nature of Brautigan's novel. For if watermelon sugar represents the imagination, so all things that it constructs are imaginary, and in In Watermelon Sugar, this includes nearly everything. Even the lives of the people who live in Watermelon Sugar are so constructed.

But not only does watermelon sugar represent the imagination, it is also a product of the imagination, or, more specifically, Brautigan's imagination. Thus, watermelon sugar as a symbol for the imagination can not be proved. For as a product of what it represents, it is trapped within itself and offers no point of reference with which to prove it. This is solipsism, and the foundation on which much of Brautigan's novel is built.

Arlen J. Hansen views this use of solipsism as damaging to Brautigan's novel in that "it tends to create an atmosphere that is so highly personal as to be obscure". Considering the outlandish setting of In Watermelon Sugar, it is easy to understand how Hansen has arrived at this conclusion. Statues of vegetables are scattered here and there, rivers connect living rooms and kitchens, and the sun shines a different color every day. Indeed it is "far to travel," and what is necessary is a giant leap of acceptance.

Brautigan realizes the problem inherent to his solipsism and offers "watermelon sugar" as a key to this acceptance. If we cannot accept this, if we view watermelon sugar as simply nonsensical, or as being a sort of science-fiction version of bricks and mortar, we will soon find ourselves in a state of confusion in the face of what will unjustly appear as either utter nonsense, or very poor science-fiction. In short, if we are to know what "deeds were done," the world in which they were done, and the people who did them, we must first "travel" watermelon sugar.

To better comprehend this unique approach, C.D. Rollins offers a definition of "epistemological solipsism" as distinct from a purely metaphysical solipsism that could not serve any practical usage in communication. Rollins explains epistemological solipsism as the idea "that to any given person, the intelligibility of existential claims originates in his own immediate experience" (490). Thus, If someone makes the existential claim that our house is on fire, we will have no trouble finding the intelligibility in that claim, for in our own immediate experience we are familiar with the concepts of "our house," and "fire." The connective, "is on," will likely incite a disagreeable response because our own experience tells us that "our house" and "fire" do not make for a congruous connection. This is a simple concept, and a universally held belief in nearly all philosophy since Descartes.

However, a more complex idea that arises from epistemological solipsism is the concept that "there are qualities or features of immediate experience necessarily describable only in a private language — or at least that there is the possibility of such a language (Rollins, p.491). In large part, In Watermelon Sugar seems to be Brautigan's attempt to prove that possibility.

One chapter, entitled "My Name?," though less significant an example than "watermelon sugar," may offer the most substantial proof of Brautigan's concentration on epistemological solipsism. Here, the narrator has the simple task of telling us his name, but interestingly his name is no simple matter:

I guess you are kind of curious as to who I am, but I am one of those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me what ever is in your mind.
If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was raining very hard.
That is my name.
(IWS, p.4)

The proposed "names" the narrator suggests for himself go on and on, and only seem to end superficially. What is implied by each is the necessity for us to look inside ourselves and find some "name" that would be representative of the feelings that each example might evoke from us. The narrator leaves no room for question as to whether such a name exists, for even if we "do not know the answer," that is his name. Implicit to this name-game is the idea that underlying all modes and events of our own immediate experience is something that can only be described in a private language.

The last "name" the narrator gives himself is unique from all the others in that it blatantly departs from the realm of our own experience, and lapses into the narrator's own: "Perhaps the trout swam in the pool but the river was only eight inches wide and the moon shone on iDEATH and the watermelon fields glowed out of proportion, dark and the moon seemed to rise from every plant. That is my name" (IWS, p.5). These are elements of the novel itself, and, like "watermelon sugar," go unexplained, or are unexplainable. iDEATH, for instance, is the thematic center of In Watermelon Sugar, but all the narrator can tell us about it is that "it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a child" (IWS, p.1). This final "name," then, goes a step beyond the ones before it. For while the others are meant only to impel us toward a realization of our own private language, this last, which inevitably has the same effect, is also a brief summary of signifiers that Brautigan has invented as a means of communicating his own private language.

It will be assumed that the intended effect of this chapter is threefold: one, that we are to recognize the undercurrents of consciousness that belie our own immediate experience; two, that we are to accept the possibility of these undercurrents being externalized into actual language, as theorized in epistemological solipsism; and three, that such language, however private, is able to communicate beyond itself, to be translated into shared experience.

Clearly, this third assertion is the most difficult to fathom, and the burden of support cannot rest solely on the substance of the novel. Granted, how well each creation is presented and enhanced will have some determination in its accessibility. Ultimately, though, the burden lies with us and how well we are able to access the undercurrent of our own immediate experience. For if we believe, as Brautigan apparently does, that this undercurrent is transmittable, it must follow that we believe that same undercurrent, in whatever its representations, to be essentially a shared phenomenon. Such a belief clearly cannot be proven by existential means. But if we do believe, we cannot merely seek to interpret Brautigan's creations using objective experience as the reference — we must recreate them for ourselves from the undercurrent of our own immediate experience.

At this point, it will be worthwhile to note another key difference that exists between the philosophies of metaphysical solipsism and epistemological solipsism. As C.D. Rollins explains, while metaphysical solipsism holds that "experience is essentially immediate... and it is had by one person only and is private to him", epistemological solipsism "does not assert that there is one and only one self which is the source" (490). For the purpose of definition, this distinction will allow us to retain the view of Brautigan's creations as solipsistic, and still hold to the assertion that they may be interpreted — or recreated — through commonality.

Yet there is at least one fault to be found in Brautigan's use of epistemological solipsism. It was said before that in order to gain an understanding of Brautigan's creations, we must recreate them from the undercurrent of our own immediate experience. But as Rollins points out, even through epistemological solipsism, "immediate experience… is not strictly shared". What this means is that not all of Brautigan's creations will be accessible to all readers. For although these creations are expressions of something which underlies immediate experience, still they are very much reactions to that experience. And while Brautigan may seek out those reactions which are most common to the immediate experience of others, there will inevitably come those instances when either the experience (in this case unspoken) is not shared by the reader, or when the reader, however familiar he may be with the experience which incites Brautigan's reaction, may not have experienced the same reaction himself. Of course, the first problem — that of the immediate experience not being shared — is one that may be encountered in any type of communication. The solution is simply to seek out the experience. For instance, if we do not understand the denotative meaning of a particular word, that word is not a part of our immediate experience. To make it a part of our immediate experience, we only need a dictionary. But, by the same analogy, Brautigan's creations are rather like the personal connotation of a word made manifest into a word itself. Thus, we may hold a word and its meaning in our immediate experience, and yet feel differently about what the word connotes. This is the primary fault in Brautigan's use of epistemological solipsism, that so much relies not only on common experience, but on the commonality of feeling regarding experience itself.

In order to examine this problem it appears necessary that I turn briefly to personal experience. Though this approach may breech standard ettiquette in formal writing, the "highly personal" nature of Brautigan's style seems almost to demand it. In so doing, I turn now to the chapter entitled "The Watermelon Sun?."

Here the narrator tells us about the unusual nature of the sun in his world: "We have an interesting thing with the sun here. It shines a different color every day" (IWS, p.38). He goes on to explain that the sun's color depends on the day of the week. Mondays are red; Tuesdays, gold; Wednesdays, gray; Thursdays, "black, soundless"; Fridays, white; Saturdays, blue; Sundays, brown (IWS, pp.38-39). When I was a child, I strongly associated days of the week with certain colors. I remember it vividly, and can still feel the pull of those associations. I even remember which colors went with which days: Mondays were red; Tuesdays, orange; Wednesdays, a sky-blue; Saturdays, red again; and Sundays were white. I do not believe there were strong associations for Thursdays or Fridays — at least I can't remember them. I know that I am not alone in this day-color association, for I have spoken with many others who feel certain that they share my experience. I have also spoken with those who not only have no recollections of such associations, but who have expressed skepticism as to the possibility that this may occur in others.

As one who has experienced such sensations, it seems clear to me that Brautigan's intended effect is to resurrect the "feeling" that comes from day/color association in order to reflect the state of childlike innocence which defines the inhabitants of Watermelon Sugar. And yet there are many who have not had this experience, and for whom the creation of "The Watermelon Sun," along with whatever significance its "feeling" may have in relation to the rest of the novel, is inaccessible.

In summary, I turn to the previous analogy of a word and its denotative meaning representing immediate experience that is readily accessible. In the case of "The Watermelon Sun," we may say that the days and the colors presented are like such words. That is, the words "Monday," and "red," and their denotative meanings are readily accessible in our immediate experience, like "house," and "fire," mentioned earlier. Even if they are not, we can make them so with the simple use of a dictionary. But "Mondays are red," though perhaps recognizable in our common experience as a metaphoric device, will only have literal connotations in the minds of some. Brautigan gives manifestation to this connotation through "The Watermelon Sun." Hence, figuratively speaking, the scenario of "The Watermelon Sun" is like the personal connotation of a word made manifest into a word itself. Literally speaking, it is the undercurrent of immediate experience being externalized into actual language, as previously discussed. As we have seen in the example of "The Watermelon Sun," this language is not always transmittable into shared experience.

Not all of Brautigan's concentration on this "undercurrent of immediate experience" manifests itself in solipsistic creation. Traditional myth and symbolism are also dominant in In Watermelon Sugar. Biblical allusions appear in many places, and references to the works of William Blake play a significant role. Edward Halsey Foster has even found evidence of Zen Buddhist myth being a large factor in the novel. But Richard Brautigan is by no means a traditionalist, and his innovation in employing these myths and symbols often results in outright transformation.

Consider, for instance, Brautigan's manipulation of Blake's Tyger symbol. First, we may view the tigers that once roamed the world of Watermelon Sugar and iDEATH as a reference to Blake's Tyger because they are persistently associated with fire. Here are a few examples:

"two tigers were trapped on the bridge and killed and then the bridge was set on fire" (IWS, p.14);

"the tiger burned with a great orange glow for hours and hours..." (IWS, p.32);

"There is a statue of the last tiger in the hatchery. The tiger is on fire in the statue" (IWS, p.92).
With such imagery so prevalent, it is difficult not to make a connection to the opening lines of Blake's poem, "The Tyger," which read, "Tyger Tyger, burning bright! In the forests of the night..." (148). To understand the thematic significance of Brautigan's tigers and their connection to Blake's Tyger, a close examination of each will be helpful.

First, the origin of the tigers appears to be unknown to those who live in Watermelon Sugar. The closest we come to such knowledge ourselves is through a conversation between Pauline and the narrator, in which the narrator says, "'Charley says maybe we were tigers a long time ago and changed but they didn't'" (IWS, p.31). As for the period of their existence, which the narrator has called "the time of the tigers" (IWS, p.12), it reaches back at least to the establishment date of the Forgotten Works (also unknown), and extends to the time when the narrator is twelve years old. Patricia Hernlund has called the establishment of the Forgotten Works the "cut-off date" of all history in Watermelon Sugar, and, by thorough analysis, dates it at 171 years from the present time of the novel. Previous to their extinction, the tigers are the only mentioned cause of death in the community, after which, suicide is the only mentioned cause, Clearly, then, the extinction of the tigers marks a significant overall change in the community.

It is interesting that, while the only function of the tigers is to bring death to the community, they are remembered so fondly. Old Chuck remembers "'how beautiful their voices were'" (IWS, p.19). Charley calls them "'helpful'" (IWS, p.35). And Pauline recalls how as a child she witnessed the burning of the last tiger, and gives us this description of the scene: "'I remember people threw flowers on the pile and stood around crying because it was the last tiger'" (IWS, p.31). It is as though the tigers, in killing members of the community, have provided a valued service to the community at large. However illogical this may seem, an understanding of Blake's Tyger does provide some clarity.

Blake's Tyger can be either a symbol of innocence or of experience, depending upon the eye of the beholder. In his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake presents the Tyger symbol in both ways. In his poems, "The Little Girl Lost," and "The Little Girl Found" (135), we find a lost child, Lyca, kept safe in the company of wild animals: "Leopards, tygers play!" Round her as she lay." When Lyca's parents, who have searched far and wide for their daughter, find "their sleeping child!" Among tygers wild," the vision has a transforming effect on them. No longer do they "fear the wolvish howl!, Nor the lion's growl." Because of Lyca's innocent perception, The Tyger is not a danger to her. Lyca's parents see this, and their experienced perception is somewhat returned to a state of innocence, and they no longer fear.

Parallel to this poem is "The Tyger." Consider the first four lines:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Here we see the Tyger viewed strictly from an experienced point of view. The speaker here, unlike Lyca, finds the Tyger "fearful." As David Weiss, in his analysis of the poem, explains, "It is only a 'fearful symmetry' to the speaker in Experience who is riddled with the prejudices of Experience, prejudices regarding what is good and what is evil, what is rational and what is irrational, or wild". Also worth noting is Weiss's assertion that "Even as the adult speaker of 'The Tiger' can see only a fragmented world which his imagination is too weak to unify, so the child—speaker cannot see the fragments that comprise the world" (254).

It is fascinating how much the people of iDEATH are like such children who "cannot see the fragments that comprise the world." We might say that all of the "forgotten things" in the Forgotten Works represent such fragments. In contrast, iDEATH's Statue of Mirrors, in which "everything is reflected," is like a looking-glass of childlike perception, where only the unity of the world can be known (IWS, p.112). And as Edward Halsey Foster has said, for the people of iDEATH, the Forgotten Works are really the "Forbidden Works" (85), because the preservation of innocent perception is vital to the preservation of iDEATH, the center of Watermelon Sugar.

The chapter entitled "Arithmetic" is by far the most revealing example of how Brautigan's tigers and Blake's Tyger come together. Here the narrator tells us how, when he was twelve, he watched the tigers kill and eat his parents: "One morning the tigers came in while we were eating breakfast and before my father could grab a weapon they killed him and they killed my mother" (IWS, p.33). As for the narrator, the tigers tell him, "'Don't be afraid...We're not going to hurt you. We don’t hurt children'" (IWS, p.33). And the narrator is not at all afraid. Rather he asks the tigers to help him with his arithmetic.

This fearlessness on the part of the narrator is Brautigan's exaggeration of innocent perception. It is by this perception that the tigers recognize him as a child — indeed, an exaggeration of Blake's Lyca. In contrast the narrator's father, who albeit never got hold of his weapon, is nonetheless implied to have had the idea in his mind. Thus the father is implied to have been fearful, and thus tainted by experienced perception.

Brautigan's tigers, in their symbolic correlation to Blake's Tyger, act as a sort of cleansing agent in the community — preservers of communal innocence. This view is affirmed by Morton D. Paley's observation that "with the Tyger burning in the night forests, Blake was using a figurative conception familiar to him in the writings of the prophets. The allusion is to the Wrath of the Lord burning through the forests of a corrupt social order" (75).

When the tigers are all killed, the utopian innocence of the community is threatened. inBOIL, who is dubiously treated as the novel's prime antagonist, is the first to reach a state of experience. Without the solution of the tigers available, the community can only ostracize inBOIL as he retreats to the Forgotten Works where he is soon joined by others who have become experienced. Thus, from the death of the tigers comes "inBOIL and his gang" who spend their days roaming the Works and making "whiskey from forgotten things..." (IWS, p.61).

But inBOIL brings a new solution to iDEATH. In a confrontation at the trout hatchery, he tells the people of Watermelon Sugar that "'Without the tigers there could be no iDEATH, and you killed the last tigers and so iDEATH went away, and you've lived here like a bunch of clucks ever since. I'm going to bring back iDEATH.'" inBOIL and his gang then proceed to commit a sort of ritualistic mass suicide by hacking off their sense organs. Hernlund has said that the reason for inBOIL's self-mutilation is to show that "the people of iDEATH have cut themselves off from every reality of the senses ... to avoid being bothered by life". But, more likely, it is to show the people of iDEATH that the only way to truly avoid being bothered by life is to literally cut off one's senses, that to merely repress sensation can never be enough to preserve a state of innocence indefinitely.

That Brautigan's book is utopian can hardly be denied, and its significance in this regard is substantial. Yet it has not been the writer's intention to explore this aspect of In Watermelon Sugar, and to reach a conclusion as to its being "eutopian" or "dystopian." Rather it has been to explore something which may be of greater overall significance when considering the general importance of Brautigan as a writer, and that is his incomparable style. An abundance of attention has been paid to the "substance" of In Watermelon Sugar without an adequate exploration of its complex use of language. Perhaps by holding Brautigan's style in the first regard, we will find the substance more accessible.

Online Source: http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Atrium/7208/(external link)

Copyright note: My purpose in putting this material on the web is to provide Brautigan scholars and fans with ideas for further research into Richard Brautigan's work. It is used here in accordance with fair use guidelines. No attempt is made regarding commercial duplication and/or dissemination. If you are the author of this article or hold the copyright and would like me to remove your article from the Brautigan Archives, please contact me at birgit at cybernetic-meadows.net.